Henry Payne: My violent, roller-coaster lap of Belle Isle in an IndyCar
Belle Isle — A lap around the Detroit Grand Prix’s Belle Isle race track in an IndyCar is a violent experience.
Sitting directly behind ex-IndyCar star Davey Hamilton (and ahead of the engine) in a twin-seat, Dallara racer, the 700-horsepower rocket accelerates with blinding speed. Lightning-quick shifts punch me in the back. Serpentine turns whip my helmeted head from side-to-side. Instant braking throws me forward. Screwed to the earth at speeds up to 150 mph with 1,200-pound springs and front-rear wings, the car bucks like a bronco over the undulating, concrete public roads.
“And I was just running at 75%,” smiled Hamilton afterwards.
Turn up the dial to 100% for 70 laps between concrete walls and you can understand why IndyCar drivers (and fellow IMSA Weathertech sportscar pilots) say the Belle Isle track is one of the most demanding circuits on the schedule. And why accidents like Felix Rosenqvist’s Saturday hit are so scary.
“You got to be a little bit crazy” to drive here, said 20-year old IndyCar phenom Rinus Veekay after placing second in Saturday’s race. “If you don't know the risks, you can't give it your all. You will touch the wall a few times in the race, which I did. It gives you a lot of adrenaline.”
Ahead of her Saturday race, IMSA driver Katherine Legge, at the wheel of her Porsche 911 GTD missile said: “I love it. It’s like racing Sebring between concrete walls.” Florida's Sebring, built on old, concrete military runways, is famously rough.
I, too, have raced Sebring in multiple cars and can attest to that. And I can attest that it’s better to be in the driver’s seat than in a passenger’s seat.
Behind the wheel you're in control. You know what’s coming. In the passenger seat you're always reacting to the driver's inputs. Knowing that, the IndyCar Experience team strapped me tight in a five-belt racing harness for my Sunday morning Belle Isle lap. IndyCar Experience operates a fleet of five IndyCar twin-seaters which it takes from race to race. Ace drivers like Hamilton and Gabby Chevez and Spencer Pigot give team sponsors and media the ride of their lives.
“It’s nine times better than Cedar Point,” thrilled WDIV-Channel 4 reporter/anchor Kim DeGiulio after her thrill ride.
The Belle Isle course is unrelenting. Entering the very fast, 130-mph, Turn 1-2 complex, I note the first of a number of strategically placed tire barriers (tires wrapped in rubber conveyer belts).
Hamilton downshifts from sixth gear to fourth. Flick right, then left, than over the extremely difficult exit of Turn 2 that falls away just as drivers get on the gas. GM President Mark Reuss — a race-licensed driver — famously spun into the wall here in 2018 when pacing the field in a Corvette. IndyCar drivers have struggled here, too — like A.J. Almendinger who clouted the wall in 2013.
Turns 4-6 are tight, technical, and crucial to launching the car onto the long back straight for the track’s best passing opportunity — as Pato O’Ward proved in his race-winning pass on Josef Newgarden in Sunday’s race. “It’s my favorite part of the race track," Cadillac sportscar driver Pipo Derani told me on a track walk Thursday.
The section proved disastrous for O’Ward’s teammate, Rosenqvist, in Saturday's race when his throttle stuck wide open going through Turn 6 at nearly 100 mph. Fortunately, another well-placed tire wall helped slow the impact of Rosenqvist’s out-of-control car before it got to the concrete walls — though the impact was still so heavy that it knocked over the barrier.
A sticky throttle is one of the most frightening experiences in motorsport. I once had the throttle stick wide open on my Porsche racer at 150 mph at Georgia's Roebling Road raceway. Luckily, it happened at the end of a straightaway with plenty of run-off room, and a long spin through the grass helped the car scrub speed before I hit a tire wall.
Rosenqvist was not so fortunate, immediately going into the tire wall at Belle Isle. He didn't suffer serious injury.
Interestingly, my visceral IndyCar lap is not hard on the ears despite the 700-horse monster behind my helmet. The engine is a twin-turbocharged V-6, not much different than the Chevy and Honda mills in the single-seat IndyCars. The turbos (which recycle exhaust for more power) muffle sound despite the car’s high revs.
I did the lap without ear plugs, my ear drums tingling as we hit 150 mph on the back straight. By contrast, I wore ear plugs last week while riding shotgun in a Porsche GT race car (with racer Leh Keen driving at, ahem, 100%) at Road Atlanta. Its screaming, unmuffled, naturally-aspirated, 9,000-RPM flat-six would have rendered me deaf without protection.
Shaken, but not deterred, I emerged from my IndyCar lap understanding why this track is so diabolical. It’s a challenge for the best of drivers.
“I’ve done a lot of (simulator) work and nothing got me ready for the experience here,” said IndyCar star Jimmy Johnson who was here for the first time this weekend. “I was just floored how technical this track is, how rough it is, how little grip there is.”
Every driver prepares differently. Derani said he and Caddy co-driver Felipe Nasr (a former winner here) benefited from a day of sim work ahead of Detroit. At his Saturday news conference, IndyCar’s Veekay said the sim helped him, too.
“Those don't do anything to prepare you for Detroit. What are you talking about?” shot back O’Ward.
Said Veekay: “No, I felt like it really happened.”
Both drivers had podium finishes this weekend. Maybe I can thumb a ride with them next year.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.